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Nonprofit to take over troubled Salem school

Steven A. Rosenberg/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

In a move that will put a public school in the hands of an outside agency for the first time in the city’s history, Salem has turned to Blueprint Schools Network, a Newton nonprofit, to run the low-achieving Bentley Elementary School.

The move comes in the middle of a state-mandated three-year period to turn around academic achievement and low MCAS scores at Bentley, which was designated a Level 4 school — the lowest classification before receivership — by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in the fall of 2011.

Despite receiving an extra $500,000 a year in grants since then to add staff and increase professional development, Bentley students’ 2013 MCAS warning/failing rate was at least twice the state average in grades 3 to 5; 40 percent of its Grade 4 math students tested in the warning/failing category, 33 percent in English.

“I think there was a shared concern amongst the School Committee about how to best accelerate growth at the Bentley,” said Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, who serves as the committee’s chairwoman and endorsed the plan to bring in Blueprint.

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Blueprint, which in Salem will operate in collaboration with another nonprofit, Empower Schools, has worked in the Denver school system to boost academic scores, and also works with English High School and Elihu Greenwood Elementary in Boston as well as schools in Fall River. In addition to Salem’s Bentley school, this fall it also will serve as the state-appointed receiver for the Dever Elementary School in Dorchester. Nationally, it works with about 11,000 students in Massachusetts, Denver, and St. Louis.

The Salem Public School District will still oversee and fund the Bentley. Blueprint will appoint a principal to run grades 3 through 5 next year; grades K through 2 will continue to be administered by a district principal. That position will be eliminated after a year, and be replaced by a sole Blueprint school chief.

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Blueprint spokeswoman Rebecca Doolin said it has yet to be decided how much Blueprint will be paid to manage the Salem school this fall. “We’re still in talks with the district to finalize the contract,” she said.

The state paid $300,000 to Blueprint for services this year to prepare to take over the Dever School in Dorchester, according to J.C. Considine, chief of staff at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Several changes proposed for Bentley next year are similar to policies adopted by area charter schools. They include a 190-day-per-year school calendar; an eight-hour day (7:20 a.m. to 3:20 p.m.); and a dress code for students. The school plan calls for personalized math tutoring, acceleration academies, Saturday classes for personalized enrichment and intervention, and implementing a school culture “steeped in high expectations and support.”

Bentley teachers in grades 3 through 5 have been informed that they will have to reapply for their jobs, and those on staff next year will be expected to attend evening school events. The teachers will still be unionized and be employees of the Salem school district, but will implement a curriculum that the nonprofit creates. Blueprint also will oversee the school’s budget, staff hiring, use of data systems, and student discipline.

Blueprint is currently advertising to fill 19 jobs at Bentley, including a head of operations at a salary of at least $90,000.

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According to Blueprint, five core strategies make up its framework: leadership instruction, daily tutoring, increased instructional time, a culture of high expectations, and using data to assess students.

After the School Committee approved the Blueprint proposal, Joyce Harrington, Salem Teachers Union president, slammed the decision. “This sends the wrong signal to parents and children who have worked so hard with the teachers to turn around Bentley Elementary,” she said.

Salem Superintendent Stephen Russell defended the decision and said it was important to allow Blueprint an opportunity to accelerate the turnaround at the 283-student school.

According to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, 75 percent of Bentley’s students come from low-income families and are receiving free or reduced lunch. In addition, 37 percent of the school’s students reported that English is not their first language.

“It is definitely an aggressive approach to being able to bring about improvement, but we are committed to having that happen and we’re doing whatever it takes to help that to occur,” said Russell.

On Monday, several parents voiced opposition to the plan.

“I think it’s a politically correct, knee-jerk reaction that’s not in the best interest of the children,” said Anne Wessel, mother of a third-grader at the school.

Robert McAleer has a child who is enrolled in the school’s Early Childhood Center and is on track to enter kindergarten next year. McAleer said he thinks the district’s intentions are good but he called the plan unrealistic.

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“They had structured the plan for Bentley’s turnaround, which obviously did not work out well, which is why they’re bringing in a nonprofit to take it over,” said McAleer. “And if it didn’t work well with the influx of capital and with them putting supposedly their brightest and most intelligent people in the education field within the school district to focus on Bentley, I find it unlikely that a group that is coming in from inner-city schools in Boston is going to be successful in the short term.”

Meanwhile, the district is moving ahead to transform the Bentley into a Horace Mann charter school, which would be still be part of the school district but run by an independent board of directors. Empower Schools is slated to prepare the district’s charter application to the state.


Steven A. Rosenberg can be reached at srosenberg@globe.
com
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